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NSF awards $24.5 million for center to stem increase of electronics power draw

By Sarah Yang

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $24.5 million to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, to head an ambitious, multi-institutional center that could one day lead to a million-fold reduction in power consumption by electronics.

The researchers said such a dramatic increase in energy efficiency could allow the digital revolution to continue well beyond the limits that would otherwise be imposed by its growing demand for energy, and allow portable applications that are currently too energy inefficient to implement. These applications include keyboard-less computing using voice recognition systems or software that can automatically – and accurately – translate spoken words into a different language.

The five-year grant by the NSF will be used to establish the Center for Energy Efficient Electronics Science, or E3S, one of only five multi-institutional Science and Technology Centers to be established this year. UC Berkeley researchers will team up with colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, Contra Costa College, Los Angeles Trade Technical College and the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to dramatically dampen electronics’ appetite for power.

“Information processing consumes more and more energy as it becomes more intertwined with our lives,” said Eli Yablonovitch, UC Berkeley professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences and the director of the Center for E3S. “This is a problem for both battery-powered equipment and for large, stationary server farms. As we make more demands on information processing, the amount of power required by electronics will continue to grow dramatically unless we make some fundamental changes to the physics, chemistry, and materials and device science that underlie information processing technologies.”

To reduce the energy requirement of electronics, researchers will focus on the basic logic switch, the decision-maker in computer chips. The logic switch function is primarily performed by transistors, which demand about 1 volt to function well. There are more than 1 billion transistors in multi-core microprocessor systems.

“The transistors in the microprocessor are what draw the most power in a computer,” said Yablonovitch. “When you feel the heat from under a laptop, blame it on the transistors.”

Many people have heard of Moore’s Law, named after Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore, which predicts the doubling every two years of the number of transistors on an integrated circuit.

“Less well known is Moore’s other prediction that the power consumption of electronic components will also drop dramatically,” said Yablonovitch. “There has been great progress in making transistor circuits more efficient, but further scientific breakthroughs will be needed to achieve the six-orders-of-magnitude further improvement that remain before we approach the theoretical limits of energy consumption.”

Researchers note that the wires of an electronic circuit could operate well on as little as a few millivolts. Since power goes down by the square of the voltage, a thousand-fold reduction in voltage requirements translates into a million-fold reduction in power consumption, said Yablonovitch.

To achieve their goal, the researchers plan to find a lower voltage alternative to today’s transistors. The work at the center, involving some 19 faculty members, including 11 from UC Berkeley, will be organized into four distinct themes:

  • Nanoelectronics: Developing semiconductor millivolt switching
  • Nanomechanics: Developing low voltage nanomechanical switches
  • Nanomagnetics: Using the technology of nanomagnets to create low energy logic switches
  • Nanophotonics: Developing optical communication that relies on only a few photons per bit

Leading each of the four themes will be UC Berkeley professors from the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences. Yablonovitch will head the nanoelectronics group, while Tsu-Jae King Liu will lead the nanomechanics group. Jeffrey Bokor will lead the nanomagnetics group, and the nanophotonics group will be led by Ming Wu.

Educational outreach is a major component of the grant. Freshman and sophomore students from Contra Costa College and Los Angeles Trade Technical College will be given the chance to take a science or engineering class at a University of California campus, improving their likelihood of successful transfer to a UC campus for the second half of their undergraduate education.

The NSF Science and Technology Center program, established in 1987, supports integrative partnerships that require large-scale, long-term funding to produce high-quality research and education.

The NSF announcement of this year’s awardees can be found online here .